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Ignoring AIDS: The Reagan Years

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We take a look at the Reagan administration blatant refusal to deal with the issue of AIDS while thousands of Americans were dying from the disease. We speak with Andy Humm of Gay USA who confronted Reagan in 1987 when he first addressed the issue near the end of his second term. [Includes transcript]

While most of Washington grinds to a halt Friday in recognition of the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan the offices of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force will be closed to protest what it calls Reagan’s lack respect for people with AIDS.

Following the discovery of the first cases of AIDS in 1981, it soon became clear a national health crisis was developing. Scientists, researchers and health care professionals at every level expressed the need for funding. But the Reagan White House remained silent on the subject.

Writing in the Washington Post in late 1985, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, stated: “It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic’s existence. Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals.”

Reagan finally addressed the issue of AIDS near the end of his second term. His remarks came May 31, 1987 at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington.

  • Andy Humm, was present at that address and confronted President Reagan. Humm is co-host of Gay USA, the weekly gay and AIDS news show, for last 20 years. He was the director of Education at the Hetrick-Martin Institute for Lesbian and Gay Youth, which in 1986 started one of the first AIDS education programs in the country. He joins us in our studios today.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: At the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington. Present at the address was Andy Humm, co-host of “Gay U.S.A.,” the weekly gay and AIDS news program for the last two decades. He’s the director of education at the Headrick Martin Institute for Lesbian and Gay Youth, which in 1986s started one of the first AIDS education programs in the country. He joins us now.

ANDY HUMM: That was back then. I left Headrick Martin in 1995. But Ronald Reagan was either one of the stupidest or most evil people ever to hold this office. If you just look at this crisis alone, which now is affecting 70 million people around the globe, this guy just sat on his hands and let this thing get out of control. I mean, you know, even from a conservative point of view, this is something that the world can’t handle now, and you know, it’s because he hated gay people and he hated people of color.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain?

ANDY HUMM: Well, explain? The chain of events. The first reports we had of AIDS were in 1981. Reagan was already president. And this came from the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that a strange cancer was being seen in gay people. Nothing was done about it. I mean, we had legionnaire’s disease. Just a little bit before that and it was front page news. The press of course was complicit in this. The Times did another story in 1981 and didn’t do another story for a couple of years. It’s funny, when Reagan’s four-page owe bit was done in the Times, there was no mention of the AIDS crisis. Somebody said: “Well, the Times must have constructed it from their own clips, because they didn’t cover the AIDS crisis in those days.” There was a lot of blame to go around, but this was the president of the United States. We looked at old press conferences; they made jokes about AIDS in the press conferences. This included the press and press spokespersons. But finally in 1987, six-and-a-half years in the crisis, he gives a speech at a fund-raiser, and a lot of us were, like, really hopeful: “Okay, finally, we’re being devastated by this. Our friends are dying, nobody understands. Nobody knows what’s going on, it was like living in two worlds!” We’re hopeful that he’s going to come up with something that the world is going to get moving on this and he started lapsing into this right wing stuff about we need to mandatorily test people in prison. This kind of stuff. We started booing, and it was a great release. We realized that he wasn’t going to change anything or address it. This — guys just standing there befuddled, why am i here. Why am I being booed. I’m a good man. He’s completely out of it. I don’t remember another instance as president where he was put in the position where he was booed. Was it good for him.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, we have now George Bush, who many believe is closest in legacy to Ronald Reagan. He has mentioned AIDS quite often in several of his speeches and State of the Union Addresses but specifically in terms of Africa, and it’s been largely talk, hasn’t it?

ANDY HUMM: Exactly. The money is not getting to the people. We have drugs that are helping a lot of people in this country live a more sustained lives on AIDS. It’s not a cure. But — we could get these drugs to relatively easily to people around the globe. It can be done, and we won’t do it. We’re still concentrating on things like abstinence programs and this stuff. The right wing agenda is being run. The money is not being rolled out. He likes to say the word, AIDS, Bush, so it gets you to feel he’s more compassionate. Folks don’t buy it. It’s not happening, and it’s got to happen or millions of people are going to die.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Hum, what is being done at the time as we continue the series, remembering the dead, looking at the 1908’s from Central America to Afghanistan, Grenada, now here at home with AIDS. In the Gay community, in the progressive community in this country to get the Reagan administration to deal with AIDS?

ANDY HUMM: Well, I mean, nobody was listening. I mean, you know, even here in New York City, Ed Koch wasn’t listening. And of course he’s a great defender of Reagan’s. He was complicit in that. They did ironically have a surgeon general, Everett Koop who was appointed because he was an anti-abortion zealot and a lot of us opposed him. He really tried to get the word — because he’s a doctor. He knew this was a medical crisis. He eventually did write a pamphlet that was distributed to Americans, again, very late. You have to remember the time, who was the domestic policy adviser? Gary Bower, who was a complete fringe nut character, who was the communications director? Pat Buchanan. These people are maniacs. The only thing that makes me feel good at this point is that Reagan is dead and Larry Kramer is still alive, who has had AIDS for 20 years.

AMY GOODMAN: The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and other L.G.B.T. Civil rights groups will be closed on Friday to protest what they’re calling Reagan’s lack of respect for people with AIDS.

ANDY HUMM: Yeah, people want to send condolences, send them to the families of people who died of AIDS. That’s what you should be doing this week.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. Andy Humm.

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